The wicked heroine, p.87
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.87

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  ~~~

  Sanych always had a small task for Geret when he made one of his after-work visits, and she warmed to his friendship again. It put her in mind of the first days of the quest, when he and she would talk for hours and never run out of topics, except this time most of the topics involved the search for Meena. She knew Salvor waited for Geret down the hall and accompanied him on her errands, and she was glad Geret was so unlike her former favorite.

  She caught herself wondering if Geret still cared for her as strongly as he had when he’d kissed her, and decided he didn’t. Just as well, she admitted. Having a prince interested in her would put her in a bit of trouble once they returned to Vint. She knew the rules regarding the Vinten succession better than most of the nobility. Archivists weren’t eligible.

  The days stretched into weeks, and the hot summer slid down toward autumn. Each clear evening, a massive fiery sunset blazed across nearly half the horizon. The vivid oranges, bright reds and luminescent pinks caught everyone’s attention. The ash of Heren Garil Sa had made itself known in the atmosphere, and it was changing the sky.

  Count Runcan and the Caliph of Hynd reached several trade agreements, which pleased them both and gave Geret a feeling of relief: at least some good was coming out of the disaster.

  Sanych added pins and marks to her map, detailing Deep Ones’ movements and migrations, according to ship sightings. She kept a special pin with a paper streamer marked with the word Shanallar stuck in the side of the corkwood, waiting for the day when she could place it. Cheriya often had to remind her to eat. The Shashei declared herself the Archivist’s personal assistant, working tirelessly beside her in the library.

  Salvor began spending much of his free time sparring or studying others’ fighting styles, and Geret shook his head at his bodyguard’s single-minded dedication.

  Kemsil passed notes to Anjoya through Geret, and told her of his new plan to sail out with the Vintens to find Meena if the opportunity arose. She was furious with him for taking on this new and dangerous quest instead of sailing safely to Vint, and refused to accept any further notes from him. Salvor empathized with the Jualan refugee.

  Geret focused on bringing the harbor rebuild project to fruition. He found it fascinating, watching the loading cranes go up and the wooden docks maze their way out from the stone dock at the harbor’s inner wall. The newly-constructed flotilla of small craft that worked in unison, despite the incoming waves, were a tribute to the skill and dedication of the denizens of Salience.

  For weeks, the blacksmiths of Lesser Salience had been reconstructing the harbor’s artificial reefs and the mechanisms that adjusted them. The first few sections were due to be placed under the water within the week, and Geret was eager to see how well they worked.

  “I wonder if the controls are above the water or if divers make the adjustments,” he mused to Kemsil and Salvor, as they hammered planks across dock struts, far into the center of the harbor.

  Kemsil passed him another salvaged plank. “Perhaps they will not let anyone see,” he said. “Perhaps it is secret even from the general public. It is the harbor’s main defense against pirates, after all.”

  “You’re probably–” Geret broke off as cannon fire echoed from outside the harbor. Everyone’s gaze was riveted on the harbor mouth. Through the gap in the rock, Geret could see several fast ships sailing past the sentries. Both sides were firing their cannons, and the sentries raised sails and anchors and gave chase.

  “Were those pirates?” Geret asked, eyes locked on the now-empty sea.

  “Folly. Let’s not wait around to find out,” Salvor said. “Geret, I’m getting you out of here.”

  “They’re gone, Salvor,” Geret protested. “Won’t that look a little odd?”

  “The Clans are very clever,” Kemsil warned. “Were I Clan, I might attack now. The final defenses are not up yet, and after ten weeks of waiting, surely there must be tons of trade goods ready for the first available ships. Or the first available sticky hands.”

  “Let’s go, Geret,” Salvor insisted. “Don’t make me drag you.”

  Geret sighed. “Fine.”

  “Look out!” Kemsil shouted, pointing.

  Everyone in earshot stopped their discussions and looked up. Sleek and fast, a triple-masted caravel slipped in as effortlessly as a pearl rolling on silk. Its triangular sails strained to hold the wind. As they watched, her gun ports slammed shut all along her sides.

  “Run!” Salvor called. “It’s going to ram the dock!” The three of them pelted toward the nearest connecting dock, a hundred breathless paces away, and the other workers nearby fled with them.

  The ship’s sails emptied upon entering the harbor proper, yet its incredible momentum carried it directly toward the unfinished dock.

  Geret, Salvor, Kemsil and the others made it to the connecting dock and risked a glance back at the oncoming Clan ship. What they saw made everyone stop to watch. Salvor stepped in front of Geret.

  Female voices shouted and an anchor splashed down, its chain cutting through the water. After a few seconds, it caught, and the ship clubhauled around in a veering slide. Another splash, another anchor, and the caravel jerked to a stop mere feet from the dock’s unfinished end. The ship rocked wildly, and the crew on board gave a cheer. A single female figure in a polished brass breastplate and a green headscarf gripped a rope and flung herself into the air from the ship’s rigging, arcing wide with the last of the ship’s momentum. The woman slid down and landed heavily on sturdy boots, causing the dock to buck under the sudden weight, and drew a short sword from a well-used scabbard.

  Geret’s jaw dropped.

  “It’s the Clans all right,” murmured Kemsil, seeing a bright sigil on the side of the ship’s prow. “But not Swordfish. A small mercy, at best.”

  Another woman in a matching breastplate leaned over the ship’s rail and called down to the first. The copper-bright braids that framed her face were distinct even at this distance.

  “Wisdom’s tits,” Salvor swore, stunned. The woman on the dock stalked toward them, and the other workers fled.

  “Shouldn’t we flee also, like the other sane men?” Kemsil whispered, shifting his feet.

  “No,” Geret said, eyes on the approaching figure. “That won’t be necessary.”

  The woman in the gleaming breastplate drew close. A tip of her head indicated amusement, or possibly consideration of the best way to kill them.

  Salvor eyed her blade, while Geret stared at her face in wonder. Kemsil gulped audibly.

  She stopped before them. “I have just one question for you,” the woman said, twitching her sword. Her eyes were hard as emeralds. “And I’m only going to ask it once. If I get the answer I want, I’ll let you live.”

  Epilogue

  Onix Oolat, Hand of Power and mighty leader of the Dzur i’Oth, studied his dawn-lit reflection in the magical mirror he had willed into existence. His own haughty gaze looked back at him as he stood among the breezes, in one of the topless white marble towers of the ruined Dragon Temple. Gone were any traces of the humble fisherman’s son he had once been. His eyes had even given up their deep earthen color in his pursuit of his glorious destiny. Behind him steamed the volcano known as the Green Dragon, its near-perfect cone visible in the mirror’s reflection. Before him stretched the green hills and plains of his homeland. He could see several places across the landscape where hot springs steamed in the cool morning air.

  So close, for so long, he thought. And yet, so completely incapable of retrieving what is ours by right! Shanal is the world’s strongest font of magic, the birthplace of wizards, the land of miracles! The Great and Dire Tome of Ages deserves a place of honor here, not a shameful prison! When I get my hands on that thief, she will feel the scourges of my wrath for years, before I strip her of her immortality and let her die by the power of the very book she tried to destroy!

  Oolat realized he had clenched his fists in rage when he heard the silvered gauntlet squeak ag
ainst itself in protest. He relaxed once more, letting his gaze drift across the land again, and amused himself by fantasizing about torturing the woman who had stolen the rightful destiny of her own people. Then a new option for dealing with her rose in his mind, and he smiled at the perfect karmic circle it formed. His high laugh echoed across the slopes of the volcano, and he raised his arms and let his head fall back in sheer bliss.

  A shuffle of feet across the ruined floor of the marble tower caught his ear, and he turned to see his second-in-command approach. The bald man’s body posture spoke of excitement.

  “What is it, Bailik?” Oolat asked, lidding his eyes in apathy.

  “Master,” the man replied, meeting Oolat’s eyes with confidence, “The latest resonance spells confirm that the recent motions of the key are part of a definite pattern.”

  Oolat turned to look out toward the sea, gleaming golden in the sunrise. A smile rested on his lips. “The thief approaches. Our reckoning will soon be at hand.”

  Excerpt from Chapter One of Oathen

  (the sequel to The Wicked Heroine)

  Anjoya Meseer glided through the busy afternoon crowds that thronged the Market Quarter of Greater Salience, and barely kept the tears that edged her dark eyes from falling. They might streak the kohl she’d lined them with, and no hostess, not even one forced to live and work in Lesser Salience, would let herself appear as anything less than poised and perfect at all times.

  Her feet still remembered the path from her half-sister’s residence to the elevator shaft nearest Anjoya’s home. She let the sights and smells of the city that had introduced her to Kemsil soothe her anger.

  But not for long. Kemsil, too, was being unreasonable, proclaiming that he owed his life to the four easterners who had rescued him from slavers, Clan Swordfish, and the destructive quake ripple that had washed out Salience Harbor a thousand feet below her sandals. He planned to leave with them to look for their lost companion, Meena, should the diminutive Archivist ever locate her again.

  He’d accompany them back onto the sea, where not only the pirates of Clan Swordfish lurked, but his own Jualan people, who would likely kill him on sight for not showing up at his arranged marriage--because he had been kidnapped by pirates!

  Anjoya found her fingernails digging into her long silk sleeves, and relaxed. At least Kemsil really cared about her. Her sister Ethari had nothing but hidden agendas and a decades-old pipe full of jealousy.

  Please do me the honor of attending my luncheon in two days’ time, her note had read. My guests will benefit from your presence, and I will be happy to share half of the hostess fee with you.

  Despite her misgivings, Anjoya had ridden the elevator to the upper city and walked to Ethari’s home. She’d dressed in her best silks, having spent hours braiding her long, dark hair and tucking it through an open-topped turban in order to blend in with the Citizens. It never hurt to accept a chance to demonstrate one’s skills in her line of work, and her sister knew it, since she was a hostess as well. What Ethari didn’t know was that Anjoya was hurting for money, having turned away several well-paying clients in order to clear time to instruct Kemsil’s eastern friends in Hyndi.

  Only after she arrived had she discovered that her sister was hosting six Byarran friars who had come to make use of the Great Library of Hynd. They had taken one look at her bare midriff and the books of poetry she carried, and quickly lowered their eyes.

  Anjoya had not missed Ethari’s smug expression before the Greater Salience hostess smoothed it away. The shorter, lighter-haired woman had chosen simple, conservative attire that made Anjoya look like a ruby mynah, ready to squawk forth horrible, progressive ideas that would lead to the downfall of civilization everywhere. Or so the Byarrans surely thought.

  Most of the luncheon had been full of awkward pauses and shifting glances. Anjoya knew that the small coastal realm of Byar was not in favor of its women having formal education, so all her favorite topics, like philosophy, politics and poetry, were off the table. She did manage to engage the friars in conversation regarding gardening and cloth-dying, and counted it a major victory against Ethari’s scheme to embarrass her.

  But Ethari managed to have the last word, as usual.

  “Thank you for your stimulating entertainment,” Ethari said to her in the cool stone entryway, as the friars were putting their worn sandals back on. “You may go.” As the men looked over, she tossed a money pouch to Anjoya, who caught it as it slammed against her chest.

  Anjoya’s eyes slid to the shocked friars, then pinned Ethari with a hot glare. “I am not a common whore,” she hissed, “to be paid before the eyes of guests!”

  “Then give it back.” Ethari held out a smooth hand.

  There it was: the trap. Perhaps Ethari knew more about her finances than she’d been aware of. Nostrils flaring, Anjoya took her sister’s hand and slapped the little red pouch into it. Turning to leave, she wove her way through the friars, who drew back from her skirt, not wanting her clothing to touch them.

  As she descended Ethari’s pale, broad steps and passed between twin urns overflowing with flowering vines, she heard, “My apologies, gentlemen. Her mother was a thief with lax morals, and despite my decades of trying to show her a better path, as you see, my half-sister has done little better.”

  There went any chance of having a Byarran client, ever again. The gathering of hostesses in Greater Salience–not quite a guild, but more powerful than most of them–had already barred her from hosting in the upper city, and now Ethari was trying to drive her out of the business completely. And it was working. Between the stress of her job and her personal life, she had decided to leave Salience–leave the whole continent of Eirant, even--with Count Runcan as soon as the harbor below was repaired and ready to receive maritime traffic.

  Anjoya reached the large, gilded elevator and entered with several others who wished to descend to the underground section of Salience. As the light faded in the narrow shaft, she felt tension leave her shoulders. She was glad she’d be leaving the city. Maybe she could manage a tan once she reached Vint. Sanych had warned her that it was cloudy there often, due to surrounding mountains, and Anjoya trusted the Archivist’s perfect recall, but clouds were far better than rock in Anjoya’s estimation.

  She crossed a few streets, lit from above by the ever-present glowing fungus that provided public light to Lesser Salience, and entered her home, greeting her women as they went about their daily tasks. Two of them helped her unbraid her hair once more, and within the hour, she was dressed in a loose flowing gown, curly hair down to her waist, entertaining the assistants to an emissary from Kauna’kana, while their employer visited with the caliph.

  Just as the cross-cultural joking was in full swing, a pounding at the door forced her to excuse herself from her illustrious company. The first assistant waved his heavy goblet and nodded politely, his dark braid of office gleaming across his forehead. It was times like these that made the Hyndi hostess regret that part of her job involved answering her own door.

  She set her expression into interested politeness and pulled open the thick wooden door, hoping Ethari had not followed her, nor the friars either, trying to convince her to stop reading books. The man on the other side was panting, carrying a duffel over his shoulder, and grinning like a fool.

  “Geret?” she queried of the tall, dark-eyed prince. “What has happened?”

  “I don’t have long, Anjoya,” he puffed, catching his breath. “Please tell Runcan that Sanych, Salvor, Gryme and I will be parting ways with him here. He’s to return to Vint and report to my uncle the Magister on the progress of our journey. You’re still accompanying him on the next available ship?”

  “I am…but I thought we were all going.” She eyed his duffel. “What progress is he to report? Has Sanych located your missing friend?”

  “Not yet,” Geret said, chuckling.

  Anjoya frowned in confusion. “I’m not following, Geret.”

  Geret met her e
yes with a grin and explained his plan to her.

  “What? You can’t take Gryme west! The Jualans will kill him!” the hostess argued, cutting a fearful, angry arm toward Kemsil’s homeland. Though the grimy nickname and Kemsil’s hard labor with Geret and Salvor on rebuilding the harbor had served to hide him thus far, tossing that all away and running directly toward those who wanted him dead flew in the face of his love for her.

  “That’s the problem, Anjoya,” Geret said, sobering. “I’ve begged him to reconsider, but he won’t. He says he owes us his life and won’t let us leave without him.” He looked over his shoulder. “I need to hurry before they leave without me.”

  Anjoya made an exasperated noise. “What ship would dare take you to Shanal? That’s Clan territory much of the way! And how can you go on, when you don’t know the way?”

  Geret stepped back a couple of paces, beginning to leave. “Because we have a guide again. Thank you for all the Hyndi lessons, Anjoya. Have a safe trip to Vint. Runcan will be a superb traveling companion.” He gave her a deep nod of respect, then started jogging down the street, calling, “I’ll see you in a year or two!”

  About the Author

  Jasmine Giacomo writes from Washington State, where she lives with her husband, two children, and a Bichon Frisé named Eddie. She graduated last millennium with a degree in English Literature from a college built atop a volcano.

  Though she's been writing since the age of four, she also enjoys geocaching, history, science and games, and holds a black belt in Danzan Ryu Jujitsu. She particularly enjoys reading and writing fight scenes.

  Her current writing project is Prodigal Steelwielder, book three in the Seals of the Duelists series. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, G+, Amazon, and Worlds of Jasmine.

  Table of Contents

  Maps

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Chapter Thirty-three

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Chapter Thirty-five

  Chapter Thirty-six

  Epilogue

  Excerpt from Chapter One of Oathen

  About the Author

 
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